Divide less partisan than public-private

By Richard S. Davis

“On, Wisconsin” may or may not be the most popular fight song in the country. But since Gov. Scott Walker dominated his Democratic challenger in last week’s recall election, “spinning Wisconsin” is clearly the nation’s most popular political game.

Defeated union activists tell us “all politics is local.” Move along, nothing to see here. Preferring the mote to the beam they point to a legislative victory that gave Democrats momentary Senate control.

Republicans have a different take.

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who ended public employee collective bargaining in his state by executive order in 2005, calls the Walker win a “turning point.” He also cautions that it would be “a huge mistake to read Wisconsin as some great harbinger” of the November election.

In our state, neither gubernatorial candidate plans to make collective bargaining reform a centerpiece of his campaign.

Democrat Jay Inslee has told labor groups the system is fine as it is.

Republican Rob McKenna also tells reporters “collective bargaining isn’t the problem in our state.” While he’s open to some adjustments in the current law, like giving legislators more say in labor contracts, he’d focus on getting taxpayers a better deal at the bargaining table. He makes a point of saying “state employees are the solution, not the problem.”

Washington gubernatorial contest will not be Wisconsin redux.

Nonetheless, Walker’s decisive victory and the success of ballot measures pruning public employee pensions in San Diego and San Jose last week will not go unnoticed here. Both cities voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama in 2008. San Jose has a Democratic mayor. Just as the 2009 GOP gubernatorial wins in Virginia and New Jersey foreshadowed Republican gains in 2010, these elections suggest that blue state voters are ready to break with government unions.

It’s bipartisan. Prominent Democrats like New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel have called for union concessions. Like McKenna, Emanuel calls public employees “partners in solving problems.”

Budget and political realities demand change. Pension obligations are soaring. In San Jose, pension costs tripled in a decade, claiming more than one-fifth of the city’s general fund.

Beyond budget constraints, there is inevitable political fallout as private sector workers paying substantially more for their health-care coverage recoil at being taxed to provide more generous benefits for their public sector counterparts. The divide widens as private sector employees see their neighbors enjoying early retirement on government pensions, while they postpone retirement and tend their depleted investment accounts.

In May a Marquette University Law School poll showed 75 percent of Wisconsin voters favored “requiring public employees to contribute to their own pensions and pay more for health insurance.” More than half supported the Walker restrictions on collective bargaining.

Polling on public employee collective bargaining is heavily influenced by word choice. Emily Elkins, director of polling for the Reason Foundation finds that when “polls describe collective bargaining as public unions’ right to bargain, the wording predisposes respondents to oppose policies purported to take away rights.”

She tested the proposition on Wisconsin voters. When asked whether they support or oppose reducing collective bargaining rights, a majority opposed weakening the law. Asked if they support or oppose limiting collective bargaining for public employee unions, a majority favored limits.

It’s a curious right that many private sector unions didn’t recognize until the 1960s. Legendary labor leader George Meany famously said, “you can’t collectively bargain with government.”

In 1959, Wisconsin was the first state to permit collective bargaining for public employees. In our state, public employee collective bargaining over wages and benefits is a relatively recent “right,” created in 2002 by a Democratically controlled Legislature. Only about half the states have public employee bargaining “rights” like those adopted here.

The enormous amounts of money and manpower spent on the recall speak louder than the rhetoric. Before the election both sides called the Wisconsin vote a pivotal referendum on an issue of national importance. It did not become meaningless after the polls closed June 5.

Although candidates here would like to avoid a Wisconsin replay, they should prepare their talking points. Voters may have a different view.

Richard S. Davis is president of the Washington Research Council. His email address is rsdavis@simeonpartners.com.